There’s a VA facility near my home and I pass by it about three times each week on the long runs I use to keep my body from stagnating as I grow older and achier. Seeing our American flag waving from a tall pole near the entrance to the veterans’ complex always puts a little bounce in my step. So I’m chugging by it last week wearing a sweat-stained PT shirt emblazoned with a replica of the Vietnam Service ribbon when a guy limping toward the entrance and leaning on a cane spots me. He smiles, waves and points to his own shirt that features a map of Vietnam and declares “we were winning when I left.” That got me thinking about the war that shaped me as it did so many of my generation now contemplating their mortality as a result of age rather than enemy action.
It’s not that I don’t think about the war in Vietnam and its effect on me without the stimulus of a t-shirt slogan. Truth be told, I think about that divisive, bloody conflict every day of my life in some way, shape, manner or form. And I’ve decided by now that every veteran who survived to return to the Land of the Big PX from service in Vietnam can truthfully say we — and that includes our often maligned allies in what was South Vietnam — were winning when he or she left Southeast Asia. By any rational reckoning, we were winning every military and diplomatic battle right up until the U.S. Congress sabotaged the effort and robbed the South Vietnamese of any chance at survival. Back in 1975, a Democrat-controlled Congress blithely disregarded promises made and blocked funding for any war material sent to the South Vietnamese as promised in the Paris Peace Accords. Your bog-standard Vietnam Veteran had nothing to do with that.
A case could be made that some Vietnam Veterans aided in that betrayal of our allies by voting for anti-war legislators or fueling anti-Vietnam sentiment when they returned from overseas — a notable example is our current Secretary of State — but for the most part Vietnam Veterans are proud of their service in that divisive conflict or at least proud of their willingness to serve their nation in uniform. Time heals all wounds, I guess. At this point, 50 years after the end of the war it’s hard to find a Vietnam Veteran truly bitter about his experiences and there is a continuous stream of veterans returning to South Vietnam to either exorcise ghosts or relive a little of their vibrant youth spent at war.
That fascinates me and makes me wonder why I still occasionally pick at emotional scabs this long after my wartime service. It’s a hard row for me to hoe. I was emotionally shattered after multiple combat tours when the war that defined me as a person and as a Marine ended in such a humiliating and ignoble fashion. For nearly a decade I stumbled through my life in a sort of daze trying to justify the sacrifices I made and observed in Southeast Asia. It’s fair to say that had I not stayed in uniform, surrounded by kindred and tolerant spirits, I might not have survived the peace that followed the war.
Of course I’m far from the only one still dealing with such frustration and consternation about service in Vietnam. There are some war-induced scars that will never heal. I found that out in vivid terms while researching the POW-MIA situation for Laos File the first book in my Shake Davis adventure series, which I’d decided to write as an effort at emotional catharsis. Fellow American and Vietnamese veterans I spoke with all seemed to express an admixture of fierce pride in their service and bitter resentment over government betrayal. By the time I had the book plotted in my mind, I felt as if I’d just done another tour in the jungles and rice paddies. And surprisingly, I found myself mentally walking a rugged click or two in the sandals of the enemy soldiers I fought against during the war in Southeast Asia. I used all that as impetus for the two main characters in my book, one an American veteran and the other a former North Vietnamese soldier who escorted U.S. POWs northward along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Both characters believed they were winning until they found out they were not.
That was then and this is now when another generation of American veterans has returned from wars in the Middle East. It’s hard not to relate our experience as Vietnam Veterans with what they may be facing if our country cuts and runs inconclusively from that theater of war where so many served, bled and sacrificed. What was it the man said….those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it?